This week sees the release of The Man Who Knew Infinity, about the great—and tragically short-lived— mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s stint at Cambridge a century ago. Not having watched the film yet, but having read the source book by Robert Kanigel, as well as David Leavitt’s novel The Indian Clerk, my heart sinks a little at the thought of Dev Patel playing the lead (“Slumdog Arithmetician"?). Still, it should be fun to see a film tackling that most seemingly non-cinematic of subjects, math.

Coincidentally, the young Ramanujan came to mind when I watched scenes involving a supporting character in the new film Nil Battey Sannata. “Maths ko apni zindagi se jod do (link math to your life)," says the savant-like Amal as he helps his classmates make sense of blackboard scrawls, much like Ramanujan once did with new expressions of pi. “Maths se dosti karo (become friends with math)."

This film isn’t about mathematics, but it is about someone trying to bring order to a chaotic life: Chanda (Swara Bhaskar), a single mother leading a hand-to-mouth existence in Agra, doing everything she can to ensure that her adolescent daughter Apu (Ria Shukla) gets a proper education and sets her sights high. Math figures obliquely here. Early on, to her dismay, Chanda learns about the “ganit" involved in getting concessions at coaching classes (only students who have already scored 55% are eligible). Later, as the class grapples with the twin demons of sine and cos, there is a math song; the lyrics mention quadratic equations and such, and build on the amusing device of Chanda—who has joined her daughter’s class—relating new concepts to everyday things (“tyre, tube", rhymed with “square, cube").

These are quirky scenes, and I wish there had been more such, but Nil Battey Sannata is that scary thing, a resolutely well-intentioned and good-hearted film. I’m being facetious, but only just. Like many good-hearted films, it has some lecture-baazi, some overt displays of progressiveness: Chanda gets support from a doctor (Ratna Pathak Shah) whose house she works in; encouragement comes from a local collector, so munificent and sunshine-y that the halo above his head is nearly as bright as the flashing light atop his car. And like many such films, its best moments occur in the cracks between the sermonizing, when the characters are allowed to just relax and chatter: scenes like the one where Chanda hilariously compares the experience of being in a classroom full of children to accidentally slipping into a jeth’s (brother-in-law’s) bed instead of her husband’s.

Then there are the interactions between the two protagonists. The film opens with Chanda coochie-cooing over Apu, who is reluctant to get out of bed, but becoming abrasive when she realizes too much time is being wasted. Bhaskar looks a bit young to be Apu’s mother (even if one conjectures she got married very early), but perhaps that is part of the point, enabling us to see these two in shifting roles: They are friends, snapping at each other, tossing profanities around in lighter moments (the banter includes exchanges like “chudail kahin ki"), but there are other times when Apu’s stubbornness gets out of hand, and Chanda’s fears and responsibilities take centre stage. The banter becomes edgy—you aren’t sure where playfulness ends and despair begins.

Given this dual-sidedness to the relationship, I found myself wishing that the film had more closely explored another possibility: that attending school—and getting a fillip from Amal, the math wiz—lights a serious competitive spark in Chanda that is independent of her parental concerns, and more about self-realization. Instead of the script underlining the point that everything she does is with Apu’s long-term interests in mind.

It’s possible that I’m engaging in one of the biggest no-nos for a critic: dwelling on the film he wanted to see rather than the one the film-makers set out to make. But in my defence, there are things in Nil Battey Sannata that lend themselves to this alternative scenario—starting with Bhaskar’s vibrant performance as a woman who may be leading a tough existence but who is palpably alive inside, capable of responding to new experiences; capable of being selfish once in a while. We don’t learn much about Chanda’s early life, but we know she didn’t get the chance to complete her education, and it’s easy to imagine that she would relish a second bite of the cherry. I was reminded of Shashi, played by Sridevi in English Vinglish, her decision to join an English class a response to jibes from her daughter—but the new experience becoming more about herself in the end.

As anyone who follows Hindi cinema knows, the depiction of parent-child relationships has become more varied in recent years, having moved away from many of the noble-sentimental archetypes of the past. Nil Battey Sannata usually steers clear of those clichés too, but how cool it would be to see a film where the dominant mode of the relationship is competition, where a woman can wag her thumb mockingly after getting higher marks than her daughter in a class test, not because she is trying to motivate her but simply because…she feels good about it. A mathematician might call that an identity transformation.

Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.

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